What sets Woman World (Drawn & Quarterly) apart from the wealth of other webcomics that have begun to get print publishing deals isn’t an artistic quality or subject matter. Originally shared with readers via Instagram, the majority of Woman World’s story can be told in single pages, three to nine panels each. The format is closer to newspaper comics pages than most other graphic novels or even webcomics. Though there is an overarching story and a wide universe to explore, the central conceit is fairly simple and the focus is far more on individual punchlines and the rhythm within each page.
Drawn and written by Aminder Dhaliwal, the book asks the question of what happens when all men go extinct. Unlike Y: The Last Man and other similar works, Woman World doesn’t focus on wide conflict or the outbreak of violence; riots and panic did ensue, but readers join the story after all that and jump into a world where women just exist without prior constraints. Characters are shown in small, welcoming communities that are more focused on figuring out what this new version of the world looks like rather than trying to conquer anything or fight for resources. Very few of the characters remember a time when men existed, and as they’ve been going extinct for some time, none of them remember a world dominated by them. This lack of conflict allows the book to focus on humor and characterization instead of overplayed tropes about what happens when the world is made up entirely of women.
This isn’t to say that the book is simple or even easy. Much of the humor is rooted in asking questions about the world as it is today within this new context of a women-only existence. By taking these sometimes deeply troubling things and robbing them of context, it makes them either extraordinarily existential or deeply comical, sometimes both. One character’s annoyance at being unable to find any historical texts that feature female artists, scientists, or great thinkers is funny not because it’s not upsetting, but because in Woman World there are no men to repeat that crime. It’s a perfect demonstration of the tragedy plus time equals comedy equation.
Dhaliwal’s charming art is a big part of what makes Woman World work. It’s simple and straightforward without being entirely stripped of detail. She has a knack for capturing hilarious and overblown facial expressions, particularly the look most women will immediately identify as disappointment without surprise. Backgrounds are sparse, and white dominates most pages as, for the most part, Dhaliwal is working with a limited palette and keeps both color and texture at a minimum. The result is that when she does draw highly detailed panels, or those drenched in black and dark gray, they draw the eye and encourage the reader to pause, to take it all in before forging ahead to the next page. It provides breathing room between jokes, which is unfortunately rare in a lot of humor-rich comics, especially ones like Woman World that rely on visual gags. The pages that do feature color gain texture and a little detail thanks to work by Nikolas Ilic.
To say that Woman World has a plot may be a stretch. There is a story here: the story of the women who live in the village with the flag of Beyoncé’s thighs, but there isn’t a firm beginning, middle, and end. A good number of the pages could be read at random and out of order, as chronology is only hinted at. It’s slice-of-life rooted in the affection these women feel for one another and laughter that’s a result of extraordinary circumstances, rather than punching in any particular direction. Bad behavior doesn’t get a pass just because the characters are exclusively women, and the community is clearly a mix of different needs and motivations, each one in conflict with the others and balanced by mutual respect and cooperation rather than force. There are a couple of pages that feel awkward, leaving uncomfortable questions about how gender and sex are defined in a world where all men died by biological means. But for the most part, Dhaliwal’s Woman World feels bright and optimistic, silly and emotional and joyous because it can afford to when there is no one to tell women they shouldn’t be.